April 29, 2023

James Harvey: The truth about ‘A Nation at Risk’

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Writing in Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post blog The Answer Sheet, James Harvey gives some first hand insight on the con job that was A Nation At Risk, the Reagan-era report that kicked off the modern education reform era.

There were at least three problems with what the commission finally produced. First, it settled on its conclusions and then selected evidence to support them. Second, its argument was based on shockingly shoddy logic. And third, it proposed a curricular response that ignored the complexity of American life and the economic and racial divisions within the United States.

Harvey explains how the commission cooked the books.

Holton’s draft went through 10 revisions as the commission cherry-picked and misinterpreted data to fix the facts in support of its argument. As James W. Guthrie, an academic who admired the report and thought it was on balance a good thing, put it: The commissioners “were hellbent on proving that schools were bad. They cooked the books to get what they wanted.”

The public was told that American students lagged seriously behind in international comparisons of student achievement, even though Sweden’s Torsten Husén, chairman of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), warned the commission not to do that. He said international achievement comparisons were an exercise in “comparing the incomparable” due to enormous differences in enrollment, curriculums, objectives, goals and the organization of school systems.

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